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Forensic Examinations - 1071/21

Date Responded 01 September 2021

Provision of information held by Northumbria Police made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (the 'Act')

As you may be aware the purpose of the Act is to allow a general right of access to information held at the time of a request, by a Public Authority (including the Police), subject to certain limitations and exemptions.

You asked:

1.  For the calendar year 2021 so far (until 1 August 2021) please provide:

a)  How many digital media devices were forensically examined, or removed from a queue for forensic examination, where the device had been held in relation to any sexual offence/s

b)  For each, please provide

i)  The type of device (eg mobile, laptop etc)

ii)  Whether it was examined, or removed from a queue/schedule for examination (or similar phrasing/action).  If removed, the reason why.

iii)  The duration (in days) it was held for before examination, or being removed from a queue/schedule.

iv)  Whether it was examined (or due to be examined before being removed from the queue/schedule) internally or externally.  If external, please provide the name of the external organisation.

v)  The level and type of analysis that took place, or had been due to take place before removal.

2.  a) b) i) ii) iii) iv) and v) The same for calendar year 2020

3.  a) b) i) ii) iii) iv) and v) The same for calendar year 2019

4.  a) b) i) ii) iii) iv) and v) The same for calendar year 2018

In Response:

We have now had the opportunity to fully consider your request and I provide a response for your attention.

Following receipt of your request, searches were conducted with the Digital Forensics Unit (DFU) of Northumbria Police.  I can confirm that the information you have requested is held by Northumbria Police. 

I am able to disclose the located information to you with the following caveats noted:

  • These figures do not include items which are scheduled for delivery to the DFU, which have not yet been delivered to the DFU.
  • These figures do not include devices for which examination has commenced, but is not yet complete.
  • These figures do include sub-exhibits of submitted devices.  For example; a mobile phone containing a SIM Card and a Memory Card would be treated as three exhibits for the purpose of these totals.
  • These figures only include submissions for which the primary submission offence was identified as being related to a sexual offence.  Multi-Offence submissions may not be represented.

1.  Calendar Year 2021 (01-Jan – 31-Jul inclusive)

a.  591 devices were submitted to the Digital Forensic Unit (DFU), the examination of which was subsequently completed or the submission cancelled, in relation to Sexual Offences.

2.  Calendar Year 2020 (01-Jan – 31-Dec inclusive)

a.  1,896 devices were submitted to the Digital Forensic Unit (DFU), the examination of which was subsequently completed or the submission cancelled, in relation to Sexual Offences.

3.  Calendar Year 2019 (01-Jan – 31-Dec inclusive)

a.  2,004 devices were submitted to the Digital Forensic Unit (DFU), the examination of which was subsequently completed or the submission cancelled, in relation to Sexual Offences.

4.  Calendar Year 2018 (01-Jan – 31-Dec inclusive)

a.  2,594 devices were submitted to the Digital Forensic Unit (DFU), the examination of which was subsequently completed or the submission cancelled, in relation to Sexual Offences.

The information requested at questions 1, 2, 3 and 4 specifically at points b) i) ii) iii) iv) and v), will not be disclosed and we will rely on the following exemption:

Section 31(1)(a)(b) - Law Enforcement

Section 31 is a prejudice based qualified exemption, as such both evidence of the harm and public interest considerations need to be articulated and as such I have set these out below:


Modern day policing is intelligence led and law enforcement depends upon the development of intelligence and the gathering and security of evidence in order to disrupt criminal behaviour and bring offenders to justice.  As criminals adapt and exploit new technology, the police need to respond by overcoming hi-tech barriers in order to meet their responsibilities.  In this case the information relates to the extraction of data from digital media devices.  Revealing the tactical level at which devices are examined at would identify operational complexity in the examination of some devices and would undermine the processes involved in preventing or detecting crime and the apprehension of prosecution of offenders. 

It is widely known that the criminal fraternity analyse FOI requests to gain information on how and where they can adapt their methods to undertake illegal activity with the maximum chance of evading detection and apprehension.  Although it is not considered harmful to provide very high level data on the overall number of devices awaiting examination, providing any further breakdown of this information presents potential to undermine outstanding current intelligence and investigations and offers up information to the public at large which could be used by criminals to evade capture, ultimately disrupting the forces ability to prevent and detect crime effectively.

Public Interest Test

Factors Favouring Disclosure

Disclosure of the information would be in keeping with the overall need for forces to be open and transparent about their capability to undertake thorough and timely investigations in order to bring offenders to justice.  Disclosure would raise the general public’s awareness that the police are effectively and appropriately investigating all lines of enquiry and where this is less evident, promote public debate to bring relevant forces to account.

Factors Favouring Non-Disclosure

When the current or future law enforcement role of the force may be compromised by the release of information, the effectivity of the force will be reduced.  In this case, for the reasons outlined in the evidenced harm, the effectiveness of current and future strategies when gathering evidence may be compromised.

The personal safety of individuals is of paramount importance to the Police Service and must be considered in response of every release.  A disclosure under Freedom of Information is a release to the world and, in this case, if an investigation is compromised by disclosing tactical information relating to the extraction of data from digital devices, the impact of a case failing to reach court would no doubt have an impact on any victim’s confidence in the forces ability.

Balancing Test

As always the Freedom of Information Act has a presumption of disclosure, unless when balancing the competing public interest factors the prejudice to the community outweighs the benefits.  In this case, there is an argument for disclosure, inasmuch as the public have a right to know that every effort is made to gather all relevant evidence, including extracting data from digital devices, but this must be balanced against the negative impact these disclosures can make.

Law Enforcement is reliant on community engagement, intelligence and evidence gathering and when it is appropriate, information is given to the public.  What has been established in this case is the fact that disclosure of the levels used when extracting data would have an adverse effect on the investigative process and on the public prevention or detection of crime and the apprehension or prosecution of offenders.  This places the victims of such offending at a greater risk and is not an action the Police Service would be willing to take.  These negatives outweigh any tangible community benefit and therefore the balance does not favour disclosure at this time.

Every effort is made to ensure that the figures presented are accurate and complete.  However, it is important to note that these data have been extracted from a number of data sources used by forces for police purposes.  The detail collected to respond specifically to your request is subject to the inaccuracies inherent in any large scale recording system.  As a consequence, care should be taken to ensure data collection processes and their inevitable limitations are taken into account when interpreting those data.

The figures provided therefore are our best interpretation of relevance of data to your request, but you should be aware that the collation of figures for ad hoc requests may have limitations and this should be taken into account when those data are used.

If you decide to write an article / use the enclosed data we would ask you to take into consideration the factors highlighted in this document so as to not mislead members of the public or official bodies, or misrepresent the relevance of the whole or any part of this disclosed material.

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